Golden Door (Nuovomondo)

Italy (2006) Dir. Emanuele Crialese

At the turn of the 20th century Sicilian Salvatore Mancuso (Vincenzo Amato) decides that his family should no longer suffer the poverty of their bucolic mountain home and yearns for the more prosperous climes of America. After selling off their livestock to buy smart clothes and other travelling accessories, Salvatore and his family – irascible elderly mother Fortunata (Aurora Quattrocchi), eldest son Angelo (Francesco Casisa) and youngest son, mute Pietro (Filippo Pucillo) – embark on the journey to a new life.

Whilst at the port preparing to leave, the family meet an English woman Lucy Reed (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who insinuates herself on the Mancuso family to get on board the ship to the US. Lucy’s motives for heading to the US may be different from Salvatore’s but she has a proposal for him which ensures they haven’t seen the last of each other.

Director Emanuele Crialese may have a short CV for someone with a 15 year career but he has made his mark with his gentle films with surreal touches, and Golden Door (the direct translation of Nuovomondo is “New World”) is no different. With great attention to detail, Crialese replicates a bygone era to bring us a tale of one man’s hope for a “rags to riches” end to his life of poverty but does his family share his dreams?

If you are wondering how a tale about the harsh realities of how immigrants were treated upon arriving in the “Land of the Free” could possibly be surreal, it comes from the images Salavatore has of the prosperity in the US according to the letters he receives from other Sicilian emigrants. In his visions, fruit and veg are giant sized, everyone swims in milk and it rains money. Someone’s in for a bit of disappointment.

Despite his naivety Salvatore is driven by the idea of prosperity that the US will bring him and his family, although the family, especially his mother, aren’t so enthusiastic. Largely uneducated and with Pietro being a mute, the odds are already against them. Lucy latches onto Salvatore as she cannot board the boat without a male escort and while Fortunata disapproves, Salvatore thinks he has scored!

After a torturous journey in which their sleeping quarters are cramped bunks almost on top of each other on the bottom deck of the ship, they arrive in America where Lucy asks Salvatore to marry her in order for her to gain entry into the country. Being smitten by Lucy, Salvatore agrees in a heartbeat and even after being told she doesn’t love him, he believes it will come.

But the worst is yet to come as the immigration officials at Ellis Island subject the new arrivals to some very strict physical and metal examinations before allowing them entrance to the country, putting Fortunata and Pietro at an immediate disadvantage, while Lucy is stuck at a marriage brokering ceremony, in which the single women are all betrothed to random men who take their fancy or its back home they go. Crialese doesn’t hold back in portraying the treatment of the Sicilians as humiliating and deliberately demeaning and divisive to weed out the illiterate for the sake of their civilised world.

While the cynicism is undisguised, Crialese is also inventive with it – from the immigrants trying to see their “promised land” through a high window outside of which is a thick fog, to the comedic scene of Salvatore and family posing with their heads through the holes a portrait of smartly dressed figures in order to not look so poor on their entry form photo (this is where Lucy joins them, casually walking into shot then leaving after the picture has been taken) – showing a keen and developed eye for shot composition and structure.

The film’s muted colour palette plays a huge part in reliving the time period with some verisimilitude as much as the costumes and set pieces do, while the cast all deserve credit for their nuanced and very convincing performances.

Perhaps a little too offbeat for some, Golden Door is a delightfully esoteric, acerbic but lovingly presented tale of faith, dreams and the shattering thereof due to the myopic snobbery of bureaucracy.  

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